Friday, November 29, 2013

Images of the Day--Thanksgiving Pumpkins for Wolves

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People stuff themselves with pumpkin pie after wolfing down Thanksgiving dinner. However, wolves, coyotes and foxes dined on pumpkins stuffed with canine delicacies at the Wolf Park in Battle Creek, Indiana's annual Pumpkin Party. Just as human families may have simmering tensions beneath the Thanksgiving holiday harmony, wolves too have family feuds. Renki, the male gray wolf (Canis lupus) shown here, once lost a power struggle with his two younger brothers in the park's main pack.


Complex social interactions determine which wolf claims the rights of the alpha, or dominant, animal. Renki's family feud pitted him against his younger brothers, the litter-mates Wolfgang and Wotan (shown here), in a battle for supremacy. The wolves' caretakers eventually had to move Renki into a separate pack to protect him from his not-so-little brothers. Move over Loki and Thor, the brawling brothers Wolfgang and Wotan now have their own dynastic dilemma. Although Wolfgang rose to dominate the pack, Wotan has never completely given up his aspirations to be top dog. Wotan, named for the chief god in the Germanic pagan pantheon, may yet live up to his namesakes' grandeur.

The Wolf Park uses the pumpkins as “enrichment,” or a situation designed to break the daily routine of the sanctuary's wolves, coyotes and foxes. Animals in captivity benefit mentally and physically from enrichment activities and the challenge of figuring out new problems, such as getting at the goodies hidden in a pumpkin. Here, 15-year-old female gray wolf Marion paws at her pumpkin. Like Wolfgang, Marion rules other wolves as an alpha. Marion rose to her status despite being the smallest wolf in the park.

Wolfgang (shown here) and his brothers may have a dysfunctional family, but he still manages to express his artistic side. Wolfgang learned that when he jumps backwards repeatedly his delighted human audience will give him treats. Wolfgang even takes a cue from W. Amadeus Mozart and hops in unison with one of his caretakers while she hums a waltz.

Dharma seems to be using her pumpkin to go trick-or-treating. She lives in the main pack and is mother to Wolfgang's pups. When Dharma herself was a pup, a series of experiments studied her behavior, along with nine other wolf pups, in comparison to that of domesticated dog puppies. Dharma tended to seek out new areas to explore more than the dog puppies. She also showed less interest in unknown individuals and new objects than the dogs.

Dharma and Wolfgang's daughter, Fiona, could try out as an extra in a zombie flick. She seemed to have a knack for nibbling on noggins. Instead of brains inside the pumpkin, Fiona found treats, such as pig ears, cheese and dog biscuits. Wild wolves don't regularly hunt jack-o'-lanterns. However, the skills Fiona needed to get the good stuff out of the pumpkin were similar to the abilities wild wolves use to forage, hunt and share prey.

The Pumpkin Party wasn't a wolves-only event. Hunter and Gypsum, two gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) also got to disembowel a pumpkin. Gray foxes range in the wild from Canada to Venezuela. In the wild, gray foxes themselves can end up as snacks for wolves and coyotes. However, gray foxes have a trick up their behavioral sleeves. Unlike the wily coyotes, the sly foxes can climb trees.

Tricky red foxes can't even be trusted to be red. Devon, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), sports a darker gray coat than his distant relations Hunter and Gypsum, the gray foxes. In the wild, numerous color variations from white to black appear naturally across the red fox global distribution. Red foxes can thrive even in areas with heavy human disturbance, and gained territory from the gray fox as urbanization spread west across the United States.

Willow the coyote (Canis latrans) looks like she suffers from the post-dinner coma that overtakes many humans on Thanksgiving. In the wild, coyotes have been anything but lazy. Like the red fox coyotes have expanded their range as human settlement displaced wolves and other carnivores.

Kailani, the grey wolf in this photo, likes to bite other wolves even more than she enjoys biting this pumpkin. As a pup, Kailani started biting her mother's behind as a play behavior. She never grew out of that phase and continues to nip rumps if an unwary wolf lets her sneak up on them.

One of the wolves that often received Kailani's bites was her sister Ayla. Kailani, Wolfgang and Wotan would gang up on Ayla. Eventually, Wolf Park caregivers moved Ayla to a separate pack along with her father and Renki, the other target of the Wolfgang and Wotan alliance.
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